Zheng Qinwen leads young generation’s charge for Chinese tennis at Australian Open
Rising stars
Published: Jan 28, 2024 09:53 PM
Zheng Qinwen serves in the women's singles semi-final match during Australian Open in Melbourne on January 25, 2024. Photo: VCG

Chinese player Zheng Qinwen serves in the women's singles semi-final match during Australian Open in Melbourne on January 25, 2024. Photo: VCG

Zhang Zhizhen serves in the Men's Singles Second Round match during Australian Open in Melbourne on January 18, 2024. Photo: VCG

Chinese player Zhang Zhizhen serves in the men's singles second round match during Australian Open in Melbourne on January 18, 2024. Photo: VCG

China's tennis sensation Zheng Qinwen fell just short of her championship goal at the thrilling Australian Open women's singles final, but her attempt has won nationwide admiration. 

Despite losing to Belarusian second seed Aryna Sabalenka, the 21-year-old Zheng, nicknamed "Queen Wen," a homophone of her name Qinwen, climbed up the world rankings to 7th place - considering she was 630th when she went pro in 2022 - marking a significant milestone in her career. 

"I believe winning the championship would have fulfilled my expectations, and not achieving that indicates there is still more room for improvement," Zheng said at her post-match press conference on Saturday. 

However, her journey to the Australian Open final is an inspirational feat. "If I can contribute to the development of tennis in China, attracting more people to the sport, then that would be my honor," she responded. 

Zheng's second-place finish was even acknowledged by China's diplomatic mission in Australia.

"Zheng has showcased the positive, forward-looking spirit of Chinese athletes in this competition, demonstrating exceptional skills and unwavering determination," the Chinese Embassy in Australia said in a statement.

"We sincerely wish Zheng to continue embodying the spirit of courage and perseverance in sports, building upon her achievements and making new contributions to the global prominence of Chinese tennis," it said.

Following in the footsteps of China's tennis trailblazer Li Na, Zheng has become yet another Chinese female player to break into the top 10 and reach a Grand Slam singles final.

Zheng, who was playing in just her ninth major and had never previously been past the quarterfinals, admitted it was tough to be patient as she seeks a Grand Slam breakthrough.

She pledged to work on the mental aspect of her game Saturday's Australian Open final loss.

"Maybe I have to work more on my tennis, also work more on my mentality, work more on myself to be able to get through this moment," she said.

Carrying on legacy

A decade ago, it was Li who triumphantly lifted the Australian Open trophy at the Rod Laver Arena before Zheng made history at the Australian Open.  

Ahead of Zheng's final, a decade-old photo featuring her joining a group of girls in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province, celebrating Li's victory after her winning the 2014 Australian Open was widely circulated on social media. Zheng recognizes the impact Li has had on her.

"Before Sister Na's (referring Li) victory, Grand Slam seemed untouchable for a Chinese player. Her wins made us realize that it is something that we can achieve," Zheng said. 

Li's success has been derived from defeats. Her first Grand Slam win came at the French Open in 2011, but it should be noted that Li had also suffered a defeat at the Australian Open final before her victory at Roland Garros. It also took her three attempts before her eventual victory at the 2014 Australian Open.

"When Li made her first Grand Slam final in 2011, she was already 29," Mao Jiale, a Chengdu-based sports commentator, told the Global Times. "Considering Zheng is now just 21 years old, she still has a lot of potential to explore."

Zheng's father revealed in a recent interview that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Zheng chose to train in Spain while many other players returned to their home countries. 

But such extreme pandemic period conditions forced Zheng to train at unconventional time such as the hours before daybreak, which ultimately paved the way for her rise.

Other milestones

Zheng's achievement comes at a time when some other Chinese players also made progress. A total of 10 female and 2 male players from the Chinese mainland qualified for the main draw. 

Among them, 27-year-old Zhang Zhizhen and his partner achieved significant success, defeating the 15th and third seeded pairs to become the first Chinese mainland male player to reach the Grand Slam semifinals. 

But looking ahead, Zhang, dubbed "Triple Z" by the fans as an abbreviation of his name, said that he is focused on singles. At the Australian Open, he advanced to the second round, seeing his ranking rise into the world's top 50 for the first time and setting new records for Chinese men's tennis.

"I hope to reach the semifinals or quarterfinals in the singles, which would be a dream come true. Doubles is just an addition, helping maintain my form, and I hope for a more perfect start in the singles and going further in the competitions."

Over the last decade, particularly after Li's retirement, Chinese tennis experienced a lull. However, during this period of limited attention, the development path of professional tennis in China has gradually improved. 

Shang Juncheng, 18, is another example of a Chinese tennis athlete to have made significant breakthroughs at the Australian Open. 

Shang, who became the first Chinese mainland male player to reach the second round of the Australian Open in 2023, made it to the last 32 at the major this year. 

On the road of the youngest player to the men's draw, Shang defeated American Mackenzie McDonald in five sets and rising Indian star Sumit Nagal in four sets, before retiring early due to a leg injury in his challenge against world No.2 Carlos Alcaraz. 

Female player Wang Yafan, returning from injury, also showcased consistent excellent form as she defeated former US Open winner in a three-set thriller in the second round, before being edged out by ultimate finalist Zheng in the third round. 

The women's doubles pairing of Jiang Xinyu and Guo Hanyu, competing in their first Grand Slam together, reached the round 16, adding to the list of Chinese achievements at the Australian Open.

As the annual curtain-raiser of Grand Slams, the Australian Open has become a favorite among Chinese tennis fans due to its relatively small time difference with China and often coinciding with the Spring Festival holidays. 

The achievements of the young Chinese players reflect the revitalization of Chinese tennis and its promising future on the global stage.